COLUMBIA, S.C. – Donald Trump has emerged as the front-runner for the GOP nomination by winning over roughly a third of Republicans in the early voting states and in preference polls, packing his rallies with men and women, evangelical Christians and military veterans, blue-collar workers and wealthy retirees.
His critics have argued for months he'll never be able to grow that wide-but-only-so-deep coalition by clashing with Pope Francis, attacking former President George W. Bush and skipping debates like he did once in Iowa. His negatives, they say, are just too high.
But a new AP-GfK poll finds registered Republicans and GOP-leaning voters put Trump at the top of the still-unwieldy GOP field when it comes to which candidate fits best with their stand on the issues. They give Trump the best marks for competence and decisiveness.
Far more Republicans than not say they'd vote for Trump in the general election, and 86 percent of Republican voters think he can win in November — giving him a 15 percentage point advantage over his nearest rival.
If the number of Republican candidates shrinks as expected after Saturday's primary in South Carolina, Tuesday's Nevada caucuses and on Super Tuesday on March 1, the Trump coalition, it would appear, has plenty of room to grow.
"He understands what the problems are and he conveys that in a way that attracts blacks, whites and Democrats and Jews and Christians and independents and a lot of conservatives and a lot of evangelicals," said Ed McMullen, a Trump co-chairman in South Carolina. "When you really assess the base of who's out there for Mr. Trump and why it's there, it's there because he's got the message that they're looking for."
Predictions of Trump's inevitable political demise have arrived almost daily since the brash real estate mogul jumped into the White House race. They came again after last weekend's GOP debate, when Trump aggressively went after Bush as a president who failed to protect the country from terrorism. "The World Trade Center came down during the reign of George Bush," he said. "He kept us safe? That is not safe."
Barry Wynn, a national fundraising leader for Bush's brother, Trump rival Jeb Bush, said the moment "crystallized that if you're for Trump, you're still for Trump."
"But it also raised negatives among everybody else," he said. "Eventually you have to pay for that."
Indeed, only 42 percent of Republicans consider Trump likable and only 32 percent consider him compassionate. The AP-GfK poll found Trump and Jeb Bush are nearly tied as the candidates with the highest unfavorable ratings within their own party, with only 4 in 10 GOP voters seeing Trump in a positive light.
By comparison, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio leads the field in terms of favorability and likability. But he's yet to come close to the top of the pack, perhaps because those same voters put "likability" at the bottom of their list of priorities, with just half of GOP respondents calling it important.
Competence and decisiveness, the measures on which Trump dominates, were important to more than 9 out of 10 Republican voters.
Joan Brewer, a 70-year-old retiree from Garden City, South Carolina, is an evangelical Christian voter leaning toward casting her ballot on Saturday for Trump. She acknowledged "that mouth may get him into trouble," but she may be willing to look past his penchant for controversy to get the leader she thinks the country needs.
"This country is in trouble," Brewer said. "I want it to be Trump. We need it to be Trump."
McMullen rejected the impression that Trump's supporters are only a bunch of "lower-income, angry white men" and "rednecks," pointing to a series of campaign events in recent days at exclusive golf resorts and gated communities in South Carolina that attracted wealthy retirees and business leaders.
"The moment he started having events that brought 5,000 or 10,000 people in a room, you had African-Americans, you had independents," he said. "I mean, it was always 50-50 men-women."
While the AP-GfK poll suggests Trump can broaden his support to win the nomination, it also suggests his coalition has some limits.
Among all registered voters nationally, 6 in 10 say they have an unfavorable opinion of Trump and 54 percent say they wouldn't even consider voting for him in a general election. Perhaps most troubling for Trump is that he finishes at the bottom of the GOP field among Americans who are Hispanic, with just 16 percent viewing him favorably.
Those numbers will almost surely have to improve for Trump to be a competitive general election candidate. Hispanic voters are expected to grow to close to 12 percent of the electorate in November.
Trump's most ardent backers, however, have faith he will expand his appeal.
"I don't think he represents a particular side of the aisle," said Susan Simon, a resident of the Sun City retirement community in Bluffton, South Carolina, and a Democrat who intends to vote for Trump on Saturday. "I hope he can get rid of that gridlock and get things accomplished and not fighting that it has to be a Republican win or a Democratic win. It should be a U.S.A. win."
The AP-GfK Poll of 1,033 adults, including 345 Republican or Republican leaning registered voters, was conducted online Feb. 11-15, using a sample drawn from GfK's probability-based KnowledgePanel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, and is plus or minus 5.8 percentage points for Republican voters.
Associated Press news survey specialist Emily Swanson contributed to this report from Washington.